One of Finland’s welcome psychological constants during the turbulent 1990s has been Radio City, the Helsinki area’s most popular radio station, which airs a strange, therapeutic brew of talk, tunes and nonsense 24 hours a day.
Founded in 1985 as an alternative to the dowdy, state-run Finnish Broadcasting Corporation (YLE), this once upstart pop station, which will soon be going national, has evolved into an institution with a weekly listening audience of half a million, as well as a place of veneration for Helsinki’s large, latter-day hippie set.
To understand Radio City’s singular place in Finnish cultural life, one must make a pilgrimage to its headquarters, a large, warehouse-like edifice on the city outskirts known as lepakkoluola, “the bat cave.”
In addition to executive offices and studios, the graffiti-adorned complex — which once served as a halfway house for alcoholics — contains a large cafeteria-cum-rec room and dance hall.
One recent afternoon, several dozen radio City staffers and friends were hanging out in the station canteen, immersed in pool, pinball or smoky reverie. “I Don’t Wanna Talk About It,” the theme song from the sound track of “Philadelphia,” wafted out of an aged speaker.
This was followed by the mordant, Wolfman Jack-like voice of Nyassa, the veteran Radio City disc jockey. “The movie ‘Philidelphia’ is about the plague that’s hitting the U.S. and putting infected people into a situation in which they’re being robbed of their human rights,” he said.
“This happens in a system where the strong are only strong as long as they are strong… Now, that couldn’t happen in our lovely country — could it?”
Segue to a blowtorch-like blast of Finnish rap.
Presiding over this quirky carabet of the air is Christian Moustgaard, 44, the co-founder and general manager of Radio City. A former rock promoter and Communist, Moustgaard had to surmount numerous bureaucratic roadblocks before the government granted him and his co-founders a license for Radio City. “We had a cause,” he said. “We were liberating the air.”
“You can’t imagine what this country was like before Radio City,” said Mage Vaino, Radio City’s head of musical programming. “Before, we had to program our lives around those pitiful two hours of rock ‘n’ roll which YLE condescended to play. Then came Radio City, broadcasting music all day. It was like, Wow!”
During Radio City’s somewhat anarchic early years, the staff’s merrymaking frequently carried over onto the air. Often, there were long stretches of Zappa-like dead air, as the novice dick jockeys found themselves at a loss for what to say — or had passed out under their consoles from drinking or lack of sleep, or both.
Meanwhile, the station’s news division was broadcasting exposes of alleged business corruption.
Radio City was hurt by difficult economic times, and staff and certain features were cut. The station also faced competition in Radio Mafia, a Radio City clone started by YLE. Yet the station survived, and now thrives. Next year, after another round of bureaucratic wrangling with the government, Radio City goes national with transmitters throughout the country.
Meanwhile, Moustgaard has become a major impresario. In 1993 he organized a concert by the Leningrad Red Army Chorus in Senate Square. He has also been active as a sponsor of everything from the 1994 Helsinki film festival to an exhibition tour by the Finnish national hockey team.
Radio City’s most popular program is “Pullakuskit,” or “Bakery Boys.” Each Tuesday, Mato and Sakke, who in real life are the leaders of the Leningrad Cowboys, deliver an exotic mix of talk and music.
On a recent Tuesday, they took on the subject of Vladimar Zhirinovsky, the Russian ultra-nationalist politician. “Zhirinovsky says that Russian children miss fresh air and Santa,” Mato said. “That’s why it’s O.K. to have Finland back.”
“Keep your passports updated,” Sakke chimed in.
Whereupon followed the clangy, peculiarly Finnish sounds of a polka, “Eila Torvela,” or “Horsegirl.”
And for a strange, sublime moment all was well in the jingle-jangle Helsinki morning.